Tyrone Guthrie, a Concerto and a Lake

Dinner at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre

A few weeks ago, I made my way up to a beautiful little corner of Co. Monaghan and a few weeks later, found myself wishing I didn’t have to leave again. There are not enough words to describe the experience of living and working in a community of artists for a period of time. The only question I have for myself is why it took me so long to try something like this in the first place?

The conversations over nightly dinner covered books, poetry, art and its place in contemporary Ireland and always included me as the solitary composer in the group, narrating the journey that led me to my rather generous and inspiring quarters in Annaghmakerrig.


Guthrie Composers Room

Guthrie Composers Room

After getting lost on Monday somewhere on the way to Coothill, I eventually made it 5 hours late, but in time to settle in and attend my first dinner at the Centre.  All the poets and authors were incredibly well spoken and exceptionally knowledgeable and I found myself just wanting to sit and listen to their conversations. Martin, Nollaig, Philip, Trevor and how could I forget Gerry. I honestly didn’t feel I had much to offer as a contributor! Over the course of my first week, I found my curiosity growing more and more with regards to the work of the artists in the group, but more about that later.

I set up my manuscript and got straight to work banging out my music on both the grand pianos in the composers studio. I was fascinated with the different timbres from each.  When I got overwhelmed with that, I would turn my attention to finding text for the 3rd movement of the concerto within the various scriptures I had brought to hunt through. This was interspersed with various trips to the kitchen, which was conveniently situated right beneath me, resulting in the consumption of copious amounts of tea and brown sugar…yummmm……

The more time I spent talking to the visual artists, the more I started to question what the hell I was doing. For the first time, more than with composers, or poets, or writers, I found myself in deep conversation with artists, trying to understand how they evolved from regular painting to developing their very unique individual styles.

Whether it was Janet Pierce exploring mysticism, Karen Hendy developing mark-making as a style to escape the conscious mind, or Susan D’Amato exploring visual and conceptual correspondences between the human body and cosmological forms, the artists I met really made me turn the looking glass on myself and ask myself what I am actually trying to do musically.

Beyond writing notes and things that sound nice,

what is my actual goal when I write music?

A huge part of the first week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre was spent looking at what I was trying to write and asking myself what I was actually seeking musically. As the week came to a close, much to my surprise, I started to see myself in a different light as a composer. More than ever, I started to feel that my personal exploration was the juxtaposition of historical tonality and modern atonality, trying to find the perfect balance between the styles so they sit in harmony together.

Hope Concerto Score

Suddenly, I had re-discovered my inspiration. I also had a second theme! I had desperately hoped for a secondary theme for the dominant first movement theme and now I had it. They could flow in and out of each other, yet one was tonal and the other, atonal. It was quite and amazing discovery and quite a fantastic creative discovery actually.

As I worked away, I had no idea that my creaky piano skills were sending waves of sound wafting out the windows and floating throughout the Tyrone Guthrie grounds. Several people commented on the music and how amazing it was sounding even on the lake, much to my surprise!

I took time to play the thematic concepts for some curious artists and writers who passed through and one comment in particular that stuck with me was from Pam, who said she loved the opening theme.

My Window

“When the second theme came it,

it just unexpectedly lifted the beauty to a whole other level.”

Could I possibly get a nicer comment from a listener on a raw idea? Her excitement was infectious…. so infectious in fact, that I decided to see could I extend my stay, which is exactly what I did….

Week 2:

a piano exposed

Staying on took a little work. Out of clothes to wear, I had my mothers car which needed to be returned and I still had to find out if they had space, as the residency could only originally offer me one week.

After asking for the extra week, on the basis that the composer studio seemed open on the schedule, Monday morning arrived with Ingrid walking into the studio grinning from ear to ear telling me they had sorted me out and I could stay!  I dashed down like a little kid and had hugs for everyone in the office I was so happy. It was meant to be.

This second week was spent working my melody extensions

and seeing how far I could push them……

I discovered that the new 2nd theme worked over the original key of E minor, and more surprisingly directly over the first theme… So, they can actually sit together! That would most likely happen at the end of the movement or in the development if I have one and still go with a modified sonata form. That needs some figuring out.

I also spent a huge portion of the week working on my text. hmmmm…

verba mea audi Domine, intellege murmur meum.
Lucerna pedibus meis verbum, et lumen semitis meis

Salvete Deus, Laudate Dominus
Benedictus Sanctus Dominus, Salvete mediteris amen

V1 Posuere venia (gratia) sperare in Dei,
Qui Deum diligit mundum manent.

V2 Veni Verbum supernum, Deus, creator omnium
Audite, et meditabor in Cogita

V3 Verbum semper fluit amnis in infinita
Sustinui te, Domine, tu es spes mea

I analyzed my favorite chant lines and modes, and ultimately decided that I am going to try basing the opening around the tonic and the verse around the dominant of the mode which I think is to be aeolian.

After seeing Shostakovich use a bold and basic ostinato line repetitively throughout his 3rd movement Passacaglia, I realize that I can use the Gregorian form throughout my movement and it should work too.

The secret seems to be sticking to my choices.

I managed to find a strange chord based on the two inter related note clusters from the mode, that I think will sound nice and eery in wood winds, arriving in a seemingly pointless series of textural moments… If I move the Gregorian line through the orchestra, switching textures in the various repeats, I can create a nice arc to support a solo violin that should be a cross between Shostakovich’s 3rd and Beethovens 2nd movement.

This week, I also got to spend some personal time with the renowned artist Janet Pierce. She spoke in great detail with me about her art and I had no idea it was all based on meditation! She showed me the picture of her guru and told me about her inspiring trips to India and how it changed her art.

I like the bright light in them. It looks like there is a light behind the light and if you could jump into them, you would see the light thousands of times brighter. She laughed and said its like the light in meditation. We talked for hours on the topic we mutually love!

I honestly needed to meet other artists like this. It is something I’ve never really done before and I reminded myself of that when I felt guilty about not working more! Then, as is apparently usual for residents, I found myself considering staying a few more days ….yet again…

Week 3:

Annaghmakerrig lake

Monday morning, with Mary laughing at the inevitability of the request, I got the all clear to stay until Thursday night so onward and upward!

This week, I fell in love with boating on the lake. In fact, when I came back in the very first time, I set up a recorder and recorded myself playing, as I had an idea that didn’t seem to fit in the concerto, but seemed to be about the rowing on the lake, and the rhythm of the lake and water. I’ll get to finish it, and it will most definitely be called Annaghmakerrig Lake.

A few days later, I met the Irish poet Mary Dorcey on her way back from a grocery trip as I was working outside the conservatory on my translation. “Hello Mary and how are you today?” I asked. She smiled and not wanting to interrupt the workflow, hesitantly came over and said “its such a beautiful day isn’t it?”. “I know” I responded, appreciative of the gesture.

We proceeded to have a long and heartfelt conversation on the creative mind and on her poetry. She shared with me how one of her well known poems was started by a line that came to her out of the blue and then she ended up working backwards from there to form the verse.  On this residency, Mary is working with Dutch artist Felice Atelier, who is doing a set of paintings inspired by Mary’s poetry that will end in a book together.

This whole trip, I’ve ended up having several joyful discussions on creativity and life, and little by little discovering a shared interest in meditation and spirituality with everyone from Susan, to Mary, Jane and Karen. It was such a pleasant surprise.

The experience encouraged me to be more open to letting my spirituality appear more visible in my work, seeing as it drives it…

You know, since week 2, I was going to sleep every night with my themes playing in my mind, and waking up every morning with the themes running in my thoughts.

tools of the trade

I think being away from TV and radio helps, as does the fact that the last thing at night I was usually doing was playing the concerto voraciously on piano. I wonder can I maintain this in any way in the real world? Time will tell.

Mary surprised me on my final day, by coming on up to the studio to say goodbye in case we missed each other. Susan, Debbie and Felice did there best to embarrass me by serenading me as I tried to slip off to the car on my way out after my last supper – they didn’t succeed, as it was a wonderful final memory to have of such a beautiful place.

Tyrone Guthrie July 2011

I’m going to miss my late evening games of scrabble with Igor, Susan, Debbie, Pam, Felice and Roisin, late night Father Ted on the laptop with tea and friends, boating adventures on the tranquil lake and walking under the moon of Guru Purnima. I’m going to miss jokes over dinner, rich deserts and readings in the conservatory.  I hope I can make it to one of Philips plays in Cavan!

Goodbye Tyrone Guthrie, I will miss you, and draw inspiration from you, and return to you sooner than you think. Thank you for your inspiration and welcome. I wonder how Cora is doing?

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About musicman

- composer specializing in transforming lives via beautiful music and unconventional and ideas....
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